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natmackow's picture

Wavelengths, color and the brain

In class we discussed the notion that color is not a property of the world or of light. Rather it is a construction of the brain (and it is most likely constructed differently in different brains). It was also mentioned that color is fully dissociable from wavelength. I wonder if it is possible for humans/animals to naturally see only in wavelengths? If this were true, however, would they just create mental constructs for what each of those wavelengths means to them? Would it be more adaptive for certain animals to see less “color” (for example, dogs are known to be red-green color blind)?

This whole discussion was interesting to me because of the book I recently read, An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks. In his book, a patient, Jonathan I. (a 65-year-old artist), was in a car accident. Afterwards, Jonathan had transient amnesia, transient alexia (inability to read), and the inability to see color. This was devastating to the artist who had been known for his vibrant paintings. What was going on in his brain to cause this inability to perceive color? The phenomena occurred too quickly for it to be due to damage in the eyes, and in fact the patient reported that his “vision had become much sharper, that of an eagle.” Damage was not visible on CAT or MRI scans, but clearly something was altered in the portion of the brain that integrates the input from the eyes and constructs color. This was not limited to him seeing the world around him. Jonathan I. was also unable to construct color in his mind, his memories, and his dreams. He was unable to remember what color ever looked like. The patient was tested and it became clear that he could discriminate wavelengths! Could it be that all humans are capable of discriminating wavelengths in this manner? Do we just not realize this ability because our NS’s automatically construct colors from these wavelengths? This would make sense, because the damage to Jonathan’s brain seemed to have affected his ability to “translate the discriminated wavelengths into color”.

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